How valuable can people with mental disabilities be to others? In this article I
present ethnographic material on L’Arche, a Christian charity that provides care.
I describe how carers there are trained to see cognitive disability as producing not
simply an absence of rational agency, but also the presence of a quite different way
of actively inhabiting the world. I argue that, by learning to recognize and value this
unusual kind of agency, carers in L’Arche subvert the terms of a recent philosophical
debate about the worth of people with cognitive disabilities. They demonstrate that
people can value others not just as rational moral subjects, or simply as passive
objects of care, but also as charismatic and intuitive agents who actively depart from
standard norms of personhood.